Grace VanderWaal is not the same person she was a year ago. The singer and actress, whose new movie Hollywood Stargirl is available to stream on Disney+ starting today, has spent the past year living inside her character while also growing as a musician and a person. When we spoke almost exactly one year ago, she’d just begun to work on this sequel to Stargirl and was still figuring out the iconic character. Though she’d stepped into Stargirl’s shoes for the 2020 movie based on the popular 2000 story by Jerry Spinelli, she admitted didn’t realize how important the character and the story were to millennials who grew up with the book.
“I don’t think I really grasped the responsibility of it, and I actually really regret that a lot,” VanderWaal told me last year. “I feel more motivated than ever to really bring justice to her character and life to her character, because I feel disappointed in how I respected her character in the first film. I feel like I was a bit reserved because I was a little self-conscious and quiet and insecure. I was, like, 14, 15, or something. So, I feel like I’m more confidently prepared to try to bring her character to life this time.”
When we first spoke, she was determined to inject even more life into the character for the movie’s sequel, which is saying a lot for a character so full of life to begin with. The quirky teenager named Stargirl makes a huge impact on a tiny town before moving on to a new life. In the sequel — which is a story independent from Spinelli’s written work — Stargirl finds herself a little more grown up and making her way in Hollywood. It’s a story, actually, that feels perfectly written for VanderWaal, who found herself in the music industry at a young age and has had to find her way.
Hollywood Stargirl, directed by Julia Hart, who also helmed the first film, also includes a bunch of new faces, which VanderWaal was gobsmacked to get to work with. Judy Greer, whom VanderWaal calls the “most iconic early 2000s rom-com gal,” stepped into the role of Stargirl’s mother, and Uma Thurman plays an iconic musician deeply admired by Stargirl. “Uma Thurman, literally kill me,” VanderWaal says with a laugh. “I’m actually going to die. That was absolutely unbelievable and extremely intimidating.”
But not only did VanderWaal settle back into Stargirl’s life seamlessly, she even penned an original track for this film. Though she sings in Stargirl, Hollywood Stargirl gave her a chance to plan and write an original song and perform it. “I was asked to do a song for this one for the first time,” she shares. “The other one was a spontaneous thing where I just did it. And I was like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ So that added an element of pressure to it. It was also something that’s never happened to me before! I’ve never been asked to write a song about something! But I did it. Yay!”
A lot has changed in the way VanderWaal speaks of Stargirl in just a year’s time. Though she so clearly loved the character when we spoke in 2021, she still seemed timid to really live inside her world. After filming the sequel, though, there’s a marked difference in her when talking about this character. She jovially sings Stargirl’s praises and gushes over how much she loves her in a different way than she did in the past. It’s the sign of an actress who’s grown more confident, whether she knows it or not, and seems to know she delivered in the film.
“I absolutely love Stargirl and I feel like she has evolved into her own energy of what we’ve created for her,” VanderWaal shares now, after filming the sequel. “We’ve just built this world for her and this vibe for her that I just adore. And I’m just really happy to be able to play her. She’s a really good person for kids to look up to — and adults — and we can all learn a lot from her. She has very openly relatable things. The things that she’s struggling with, I’m going to be struggling for the rest of my life with.”
One of the most relatable aspects of Stargirl is her willingness to be herself even when it’s not the easy thing to do — especially as a teenager. Learning how to express yourself in a way that feels authentic is what VanderWaal spent her last year working on. For this story, I sat down with her on two occasions, a year apart, to see the real evolution of the 18-year-old rising star. When we chatted last year, VanderWaal had just released two singles, “Don’t Assume What You Don’t Know” and “Repeat.” Both songs were a departure from some of her lighter fare she’d become known for as a younger artist, proving she was growing up and making music that demonstrated that. I’m not afraid to say that both of these songs are bangers and seemed like they were going to kick off a new era for VanderWaal.
In 2021, VanderWaal told me she’s “kind of psychic,” but only related it to her music. She said “Don’t Assume What You Don’t Know” was interesting, because it was an “angry song that felt really good to get out” that low-key “predicted the future.” She wrote it in 2020 and it ended up releasing after she shocked the world by shaving her head — a decision that’s truly no big deal but surprised her fans and non-fans alike — and she felt like the song made perfect sense with what she was going through both publicly and privately. For someone who has lived in the spotlight for her formative years, she’s understandably had her ups and downs. She’s gone through the phase of feeling like she’s an adult before she truly was, and she’s gone through the phase of feeling like she knows what she’s doing. “I still don’t have it all figured out,” she says now. “And I don’t think I will for a really long time.”
In our conversation last year, she was still up in the air about where to go next, admitting that her tastes were constantly changing and her affinity for certain songs would waver, making it tricky to pin down a next release. She had just started to feel like she wanted to open up more in her music, but she hadn’t quite gotten there yet.
“I just want to express myself, bottom line,” she said last year. “In my music and my fashion and everything I do, that is the only thing that matters to me. I don’t really care if people love it or if they don’t love it, it’s honestly just something that I want to do. I want to free myself in that way. And I want to make sure that that comes out strongest in my music that I make, because that is my therapy and my art. Whatever comes out, just know that it’s from the bottom of my soul.”
However, for the rest of the year, nothing did come out. Instead, VanderWaal focused on filming and writing brand new music that has yet to be released. Rather than make music she thought people wanted to hear, she made music that she wanted to enjoy and that really digs into the stories she wants to tell. It’s been a process both scary and fulfilling.
“I am at a point in my life that I’ve never been before where I’m an adult and I’ve gone through a lot for being so young,” she shares. “And I just feel like growing up in the spotlight and being a child star, I guess, there was a lot of pressure that maybe I put on myself. I don’t know who put the pressure on me — it was definitely felt — of filtering myself. I felt like I needed to file down my experiences in order to be grateful. I thought that if I didn’t, I would be ungrateful. I was very insecure about all of it. And now, I feel like I’m at a point where I really want to invite listeners and my fans into stories that I’ve never talked about before and just be more intimate in that way about my experiences. … I feel like this project is so reflective because I just went through a lot and did a lot of stupid things and I’ve been a lot of people. I just think that it’s very surreal looking back on it.”
The result of baring her soul in her writing and recording sessions is music that is a little softer than her 2021 releases and the most vulnerable side of VanderWaal listeners have ever experienced. And it’s not something she was ready to share even a year ago when we spoke. There was no real turning point, though, she says. She just realized one day that she was starting to feel reflective about her career thus far — which started when she won America’s Got Talent at age 12 — and all the struggles of growing up in the spotlight were coming to a head. “I just think that’s me coping and healing with everything that happened,” she shares. “[The new music] is a little jarring, and I won’t want people to be too taken aback, but it’s real. I want to talk about the shit that I haven’t talked about before.”
Deciding to be more open with the people around you and be true to yourself would be hard for anyone, let alone someone with millions of people watching. It’s something VanderWaal doesn’t take lightly and, frankly, worries about. Her fans have been with her since she stepped onto the America’s Got Talent stage six years ago and have supported her every whim. They’ve grown up alongside each other, but even so, any time you do something different as an artist, there’s that hesitation and wondering how it’ll be received.
“It could make me cry,” VanderWaal says of her fans’ dedication. “I literally think about it. I’m like, ‘There are literal people out there who care about me and want me to succeed in life.’ I don’t know what I did to deserve that. I did nothing. I just got lucky, but I’m extremely grateful for it. It feels amazing. I don’t want to let them down. I want to do them proud.”
VanderWaal’s upcoming releases may sound different to listeners from what they’re expecting, but the singer doesn’t want them to get too comfortable — just like a year ago, her tastes are constantly changing and her music probably will too. “I’m a person that goes through phases heavy,” she admits. “I’m literally a brand new person every six months. And I like that. I like just having fun and going with the flow. I highly doubt that shit will stay the same, but it feels really good to start opening up. It feels really good to let my fans in on everything. That’s definitely something I’d want to continue. I will not cut those feelings off and I will be honest.”
Grace VanderWaal is not the same person she was a year ago. She’s both stronger and more vulnerable and she’s ready to live her truth, no matter how scary it can be.